Because of Brenner Children’s Hospital



The hypothetical question produces a thoughtful pause and two answers from Alisa Starbuck, DNP, APRN, NNP-BC, NEA-BC.

The question: What if there were no Brenner Children’s Hospital?

“Children would still get good basic care but not the specialized care they need,” says Starbuck, drawing on her 30 years of work at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Brenner Children’s that began as a staff nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and has evolved into her current role as vice president of women’s and children’s health services and executive director of Brenner Children’s.

“If we weren’t a specialized children’s hospital, we might not understand that, for children, we need to limit the radiation they are exposed to from a CT scan, or we might not have specially trained staff who would take the time to calm a child before a procedure.”

In her second response, you hear her as the nurse from the NICU.

“There are children I cared for who have grown up, gone to college and have families of their own,” she says, “who would not have had the chance to do that if not for Brenner Children’s Hospital.”

Building a Children’s Hospital

Starbuck joined the Medical Center the year Brenner Children’s was founded—1986. Even before the founding of the children’s hospital, Wake Forest Baptist had provided pediatric care for many years.

In 1981, the Brenner family, which had operated a family-owned business in Winston-Salem for 60 years, established the Brenner Center for Adolescent Medicine at what was then known as North Carolina Baptist Hospital. The center, the first of its kind in North Carolina, provided a clinic and a teaching program for medical students and pediatric residents.

“There was a general inpatient pediatrics unit, a NICU and a four-bed PICU (pediatric intensive care unit),” Starbuck recalls. “To have a pediatrics residency training program, you had to have those components in place.”

Jimmy Simon, MD, then chief of pediatrics at the Medical Center, continued talking with the Brenner family about his dream—a major hospital devoted to children. The Brenners remained committed to doing even more, and in 1986, they gave additional funds to establish Brenner Children’s.

It marked an improvement in pediatric care but was limited to three floors in North Carolina Baptist Hospital. Starbuck says the atmosphere changed significantly in 2002, when the Medical Center opened Ardmore Tower West, where Brenner Children’s remains. It consists of 160 private rooms, six playrooms, an interactive video wall and a rooftop garden with playground equipment.

“It was a child-friendly space that had the look and feel of a hospital dedicated to the care of children and families,” Starbuck says. “It felt like we had arrived.”

childFor Patients and Families

From the start, the guiding philosophy went beyond caring for the child to including the family.

“Family-centered care began at the children’s hospital. Caring for and including the entire family is foundational to pediatrics,” Starbuck says. “It’s not about treating an episodic illness. We have to keep in mind what that family will look like after the hospital care is completed.

“When a child is in the hospital, those families will remember everything that happens and everything that’s said for the rest of their lives. Making their experience the absolute best possible is our goal every day.”

Because of the success of patient- and family-centered care at Brenner Children’s, the concept was formally adopted across Wake Forest Baptist in 2014 as a basic tenet of care.

“As health care providers, anybody who works in a hospital, we are all caregivers,” says Julie Barnes, RN, MSN, who championed the concept at Brenner Children’s and now is manager of patient- and family-centered care at Wake Forest Baptist. Like Starbuck, Barnes also worked as a pediatric nurse. “I think we have this great privilege of taking care of families when they are at their most vulnerable times.

“Many of our patients and their families didn’t sign up to take the journey that they’re on. We did. So when they come here in their vulnerable time, and they’re met with kindness and they’re met with compassion and they’re met with things that can help to normalize this abnormal experience that they’re having, I think that really makes a difference.”

Resources and Expertise

Starbuck says she wonders sometimes if the community fully realizes what it means to have access to a leading children’s hospital.

Alisa Starbuck (center) talks with nurses at Brenner Children’s Hospital

Alisa Starbuck (center) talks with nurses at Brenner Children’s Hospital

“It’s one of the shining stars for children in this community,” she says, referring specifically to the Level 1 Pediatric Trauma Center at the hospital. In other words, Brenner Children’s has the highest level of care available for treating children who suffer the worst injuries.

It means there’s a modern emergency department designed just for children, and critical care transport teams that can rush injured children to that emergency department. It means there’s one of the largest NICUs in the state—with plans to build a new, larger one in the near future.

There are also programs such as Brenner FIT (Families in Training), nationally recognized for working to turn the tide of childhood obesity, and the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma, which, although not a part of Brenner Children’s, complements the Medical Center’s commitment to children’s health.

“It’s a matter of having the resources and the expertise to provide the care that’s needed,” Starbuck says. “The children’s hospital brings that together. We have the people, the infrastructure and the equipment to bridge the knowledge gap to deliver the best possible care.”

BRENNER entranceMagnet for Support

Brenner Children’s, which was founded on a philanthropic gift, relies on a community of donors who care enough to sustain it. Often, those gifts come from families who are grateful for the care they received.

Support has come from:

  • Estate gifts, like the one that provided cleverly named NICview cameras that let parents check on their newborns in the NICU when they are away from the hospital
  • Targeted fundraising campaigns involving large numbers of donors, such as the campaign that provided for the hospital’s rooftop playground
  • Ongoing fundraising efforts, like the Family-centered Care Fund, which attracts hundreds of relatively small gifts that make a big difference for families that need help covering basic expenses such as food, gas and lodging while their child receives care
  • Generous individual donations that have established endowed faculty positions and programs

Two volunteer groups play vital roles in rallying support.

The Friends of Brenner group was formed in 1987 to support the hospital through fundraising and community awareness activities. Members help lead fundraising events such as Cheers! A toast to children’s health, where attendees sample wines and delicacies from area restaurants. In 11 years, the event has raised $1 million. Friends members also support an annual radiothon that has also raised roughly $1 million over the past decade, and they decorate the hospital for the holidays, among other activities.

Support also is provided by the Brenner Children’s Advisory Group, which is made up of community leaders committed to advancing philanthropy.

Often, though, donations come from different corners of the community as people organize their own benefit events. Scores of golf tournaments and community fundraising events organized by individuals and groups throughout North Carolina have raised money for the hospital. Donations of toys, books and other items are made routinely by church groups, youth groups and others.

People have gone to remarkable lengths to encourage others to give as well. A man once walked from his home in Hickory, N.C., to the front door of the Brenner Children’s emergency department—75 miles—to raise awareness and money for the hospital.

Into the Future

The quest to provide the best care for children never ends, according to Katherine Poehling, MD, MPH, the Weston M. Kelsey Professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics.

“We have a new strategic plan in place for pediatrics for Brenner Children’s that was shaped by input from faculty and staff as well as from families who experience the care we provide,” says Poehling, who was named chair in October after serving as interim chair since May 2015.

“Brenner Children’s Hospital has recently added some outstanding faculty that represent a range of subspecialties, restructured our multispecialty clinic, added some clinics that bridge specialty areas and expanded the Brenner transport team. All of these changes are designed to enhance the experience for our patients and their families.”

The improvements are aimed at allowing Brenner Children’s to provide care for families that Starbuck describes as truly seamless.

“Brenner should be even better known throughout the region and around the country as among the best children’s hospitals,” Starbuck says.